Call Mama Doctor

Chapter 16. The Invincible Diviner

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

A few years before I arrived at the Kwiro mission a small outpost had been established among the plains tribe of the Wangindo in a very remote area. The Father in charge of this station came to the mission where I worked about once a month for fresh supplies and often invited me to visit his outpost at Luhombero, not only because he needed my help, but because he thought I would find it interesting to work among these people. The tribe had practically had no contact with the outside world until the arrival of the Father and a friar who began to build kilns and to produce bricks for house construction. The local people showed great interest and many young men came to help them and to learn the trade. Some erected their own houses with the new material. But apart from a few families, not many of the tribesmen were eager to convert. They were still hunters and their villages were spread out over a large area. The people were neither Christians nor Islamic but adhered to their own traditional beliefs. However, many sent their children to the mission school, saying: “Let our children be taught new ways; let them become Christians if they want to, but we old-timers prefer to remain the way we are.”

All tribesmen were grateful for the medical help offered by the mission since there were no other treatment facilities that far away from modern civilization. Whether the Father liked it or not, he had become deeply involved in treating the sick, assisted only by a dresser at the small mission dispensary. They were both pleased to present to me their most difficult cases, and the Father took me along on his regular safaris by motorbike to distant villages. People very much appreciated our visits and when they heard the picki-picki, as they called the motor bike, they would assemble in the village square with their sick. Sometimes they asked me to come along to their huts if the patient happened to be too ill to be moved. Most of the people spoke only their tribal language, but there were always one or two children in the village who knew some Swahili, and who had to be the go-betweens. Our mutual struggle to understand each other gave rise to much good-natured laughter and people thanked us with small presents. Mostly they brought rice, eggs, chicken and other foods, but at times they. also gave me artifacts like a drum, a carved walking stick or a homemade basket. The amount of supplies one could take along on such field trips was, however, quite limited. Sometimes we ran out of gas with our small motor bike and we then had to walk for miles in the sun. We therefore encouraged the people to bring their sick ones to us at the mission.

It was amazing how the people changed when they came to the mission. At home in their villages they were relaxed, friendly and quick to laugh, but when arriving at the mission they lost their self-confidence and became fearful and apprehensive. Everything about the mission seemed to scare them and it was always a struggle to have them stay long enough for proper treatment. Numerous taboos and proscriptions complicated living arrangements when families from different villages had to stay together in one place. I tried to understand the motivation behind their behavior but usually they would only answer: “The mbui says we have to do it this way.” The mbui, diviner, seemed to have great influence over his people and the dresser informed me that sick people always consulted him before they would come to the dispensary. Each time there was some small misunderstanding between us, anxiety flared up and we seemed to be dealing with unexpected crisis situations all the time.

One day a large group of people arrived from a far-off village bringing with them a sick girl. The men carried their bow and arrows, the women big loads of food and straw mats on their heads. The women kept at a distance hiding behind the men, mothers holding on to their children as if they were afraid I might touch them. Together with the people at the mission I mustered the newcomers as they assembled outside the dispensary. Just to have a look, I pulled out an arrow from the quiver a man carried in a sling around his shoulder. At that moment people dropped everything and ran for their lives, and in a few seconds not a soul could be seen. I stood baffled. What had happened? Everybody had disappeared. “Put down the arrow Mama Mganga, don't touch it, leave it on the ground and come here! ” It was the urgent voice of the dresser from inside the dispensary where he too had taken refuge. I looked at the arrow. Its point was blackened, I noticed. I placed it on the ground and walked over to the dispensary. The yard remained deserted until the dresser went outside and called out that Mama Mganga did not intend to harm anybody. She did not know it was a poison arrow. Finally the man who owned the arrow came forth. He approached slowly and with caution, keeping his eyes fixed on the door of the dispensary, ready to flee again at the slightest movement there. Not before he had secured his arrow did he call the others to come out of hiding. They were unable to overcome their fear and distrust of me, however, and I very much regretted my thoughtless action. In vain we tried to persuade them to stay or to leave the sick girl with us. As soon as I had given her some medication they picked her up and hastened back to their village.

After work that day I asked the dresser to tell me more about the poison arrows and why the people had been so frightened. He explained to me that the poison on the arrow was extremely potent. Even the slightest scratch inflicted by such an arrow would be deadly. The Wangindo hunters used it to kill their game. It did not matter where the arrow hit, a few seconds later the animal would shiver, collapse and die. As I later found out, the arrow poison contains the cardiotoxic substance ouabain which kills the prey without spoiling the meat. The poison is extracted from the sap of a tree, and only some trees at certain times of the year will yield enough of the poison to make it worthwhile. The trained hunter will spot such a tree on travels in the bush because he finds dead insects and birds lying under it. Keeping his find secret, the hunter extracts the sap and prepares a decoction, the recipe for which nobody outside the tribe knows. The hunter has a hazardous method of testing the strength of the poison. He makes a small cut below his knee and lets blood trickle down his leg. At the ankle he places a sample of the poison. As soon as the blood reaches the poison, a reaction takes place, discoloring the blood as the poison creeps upwards along the blood streak. The strength of the poison determines how quickly it will move upwards. Just before it reaches the wound, the man scrapes off poison and blood with one sweeping movement of his bush knife. Should he for some reason hesitate and not act fast enough so that the poison reaches the cut and gets into the bloodstream, he would be dead within seconds. Such accidents were known to have happened, the dresser told me. The poison is mixed with adhesive materials, smeared on the arrow heads and dried in the sun. The hunter takes along two or three such arrows on his hunting trips. They are placed in a special quiver and the man never parts from it as long as he is on the way. At home, or if he stays with friends, he keeps it securely hidden. No wonder the people had been terrified by my rash action!

One morning there was again a turmoil in the yard. I hurried out and found the Father in the middle of a large crowd. People were agitated and appeared outright hostile. For a moment I thought they were going to attack him, but when they saw me approach they made way and fell silent. I could feel the tension building up. The Father turned to me, looking quite embarrassed. “People tell me that a newly buried body from the cemetery has been dug out and the grave has been desecrated. Although they do not dare to say so directly, people seem to think that you have something to do with it. Somebody saw you walking out there in the dark.” I felt hot; it was true, I had been walking past the graveyard the night before. It had been such a beautiful moonlit night, I had taken a stroll in the cool evening not thinking anything about passing the cemetery behind the church. Since that incident with the poison arrow, people had been quite uneasy about me; they probably thought I was a witch using cadavers for some sinister purpose as sorcerers were expected to do.

The crowd grew and people appeared terribly upset. Anxiously I asked the Father whether it might be wiser for me to leave the area, when I suddenly noticed a change in the mood of the crowd. They had turned their attention to a newcomer who addressed them eagerly. We could not understand what he was saying, but the people calmed down and soon dispersed, many looking embarrassed and bewildered. We asked the cook, who was always well informed, what had been said. The man, he told us, had come with a message from the diviner. The mbui had announced that the grave was opened by hyenas. No person was to be blamed for the disappearance of the corpse, except perhaps for the men who dug the grave and failed to close it properly. Again it seemed to me that this diviner had great power over the people and I asked the dresser whether he thought there would be a chance for me to see this man. He was not sure, but promised he would let it be known that Mama Mganga wished to meet with the famous mbui.

Time passed, but there was no response. Then much later, on another visit to the area, I happened to treat one of the diviner's close relatives. We were just having our evening meal when the cook reported the arrival of an important family with a sick member. The patient was a very old man and it was easy to see that his days were numbered. I was rather surprised that he was brought to the mission since old people usually preferred to die at home. After having examined him I explained to the family that he was going to die, but the old man himself insisted on wanting to stay under my care. I agreed to keep him only if some of his relatives would stay and help look after him. After much talk two men stepped forward and presented themselves as the patient's brother and his son. We had them carry the old man to an empty storehouse where they could stay with him and we provided them with firewood so they could make a fire on the stone floor to keep the old man warm during the cool night. Later in the evening I went to see the patient. To my great surprise and indignation I found the brother and his son sitting outside beside a blazing fire, while the sick old man was lying in the dark, shivering in his wet rags on the cold cement floor of the storehouse. I could not help scolding the two men at the fire but they did not move to help me while I cleaned up the mess on the floor and brought a straw mat and a blanket for the patient. The old man thanked me and when he was bit more comfortable he fell asleep.

As I continued to upbraid the men outside, they hung their heads and waited for me to calm down. The expression on their faces was genuinely sorrowful. Finally the patient's brother lifted his head and looked at me with sad eyes. “Mama Mganga,” he said in a mild voice, “this dying man is my oldest brother. Many years ago he infringed upon my rights with my wife and they had a son.” He nodded at the youngster sitting motionless and staring into the fire. Then he continued. “When we started to make the fire and wanted to sit with him in the room my brother said, ‘Brother, it is not wise of you to stay with me now. Remember the words of the mbui when we brought our troubles before him at the time I wronged you. You are the oldest, the mbui said to me, you'll die first. Because of your misdeed you will have to die alone, since anybody of your close family staying with you when you have to go would be accused of having used witchcraft. Therefore my brother, leave me alone now. You can sit with our son outside the hut, but let Mama Mganga take care of me.’” I was moved by the strange beauty of this family tragedy now drawing to its end. I understood why the old man had chose to die away from his family; he wanted to avoid new quarrels breaking out because of suspicions surrounding his death.

Everyday I went down to the storehouse to see the old man. He was quickly going downhill, but I could at least make his last days a bit more comfortable. In the evening I used to sit for a while with his brother and son to wait for the patient to fall asleep. The two men were happy to have company during the lonely watch and they tried to keep me there as long as possible. When the old man finally died and the two returned home, the brother of the deceased man said to me, “I have heard you want to meet our mbui. He is my cousin. When we have returned home, I will let him know how kindly you treated us here and how you helped my brother in his last days. He may well grant you a visit.” And indeed a few days later, the young boy returned and asked to speak to me alone. The mbui he said, had agreed to see me if I could arrange the visit in such a way that nobody else would know of it. The boy was to take me there. We decided I should prepare as for one of my medical safaris, and we would set out early the next morning. That night I could hardly sleep. Since I could not tell anybody where I was going, not even the dresser or the Father, I would be completely at the mercy of my escort. But the taste for adventure overcame my doubts and we departed as if I was to visit a patient in a village.

We had to walk a long distance since the diviner's compound was in a secluded place in the foothills of the Sali Mountains. After we had passed the last village, the boy turned off the road and led me through a thick forest on a hardly visible path. Winding its way along the hillside it ended at a cluster of huts under huge mango trees. Before entering the compound the boy asked me to wait while he announced our arrival. My heart was pounding, not only from our brisk march, but from anticipation of what would follow. Now at the destination I could not help feeling apprehensive and I tried to think of what I was going to say when facing the mbui.

The boy returned with a ceremonial scarf placed over his shoulder and took me to a seat under the mango trees. I saw a frail figure draped in a red blanket coming out of the largest hut and approaching me slowly. This must be him, I thought, and wanted to stand up to greet him, but with an authoritative gesture he bid me to remain seated. He did not extend his hand as was customary, but sat down in the sun well outside the shadow of the trees. His hair was black and the skin of his face smooth like that of a youth, his searching eyes bright and clear. Only the depigmented dry skin of his legs betrayed his advanced age. He greeted me with dignity and sat quietly waiting for me to speak. Women and children gathered around him but kept at a respectful distance.

The reserved manner of the mbui and the inquisitive glances of the people surrounding him only heightened the tension I felt. It was difficult to gather my thoughts and put them in appropriate Swahili but I finally succeeded in expressing my thanks for having been granted this visit. I felt embarrassed about my language when he replied in perfect Swahili. He started out with formal phrases; he was glad I had come the long way to pay him a visit; he hoped the journey had not been too unpleasant or hot. Having answered thus, he was again silent, leaving the initiative to me. It was indeed very hot. Insects swarmed around and irritated me with their stings. Each time the slightest breeze moved the branches above me, ripe mango fruits came tumbling down. I could hear the hard fruits rattle through the leaves on their way down and waited nervously for some of them to fall on me. Judging from the loud thud when they hit the ground, I gathered it would be pretty painful to have one fall on my head. Later somebody told me that it was kind of a test the mbui let his visitors undergo by placing them under the mango trees. Those who sat stoically and unperturbed were deemed to have a strong spirit, especially if they were not hit by a falling fruit. Mine must have been fairly strong, since the mangos, smashing down and cracking open right and left of me, never hit me. After some time I did forget about them as I was trying hard to keep up the conversation.

I told the mbui that I was impressed by the wise counsel he had given to patients I saw. Could he explain what was the difference between a mbui like him and a mganga, medicine man? My words seemed to please him. He thought about my question for a while before he answered. “It is true that I too use herbs on certain occasions,” he began, “but my task is to find the causes of illness rather than to cure them.” He paused, but since I did not say anything he continued, “Sickness and death have many causes. If they are caused by the supreme spirit mlungu, then it is fate and nobody is to blame or can do anything about it. If ancestral spirits have been offended, I can divine and perform rituals according to our custom to help the victim find out what has been done wrong. At other times the affliction is caused by sorcery, uchavi, or by poison. I cannot cure witchcraft, but I can trace the culprit and advise the victim's family which mganga should be called, how to placate the sorcerer and what kinds of gifts and services are necessary to obtain the medicine which will cure the victim or take away the spell. Illness might be caused by the sick person himself. When he comes to me for help I will withdraw to my ludewa and ask my helping spirits for the wisdom to understand that person, his whole life situation and what went wrong.” “What is the ludewa?” I asked as the mbui made a pause. He looked at me and hesitated. He turned to the boy who had accompanied me and said something to him at which the boy went into the mbui's hut and brought out a wooden box which he placed before him. Out of it the old diviner took a small bottle-gourd with a round hole in one end. He blew over the opening and the gourd gave a hollow sound. He listened attentively. “The tune is good, we can go,” he said to the boy. Then he turned to me again, now with a more friendly expression. “You can come with me. I will show you my ludewa.”

A narrow path behind his hut took us into the forest again. Only the boys followed us as we climbed up the hill; the women and girls stayed behind. I had the hardest time to keep up with the light footed old man who walked ahead. I felt unbearably hot from climbing in the mid-day sun and just as I was close to giving up, exhausted, we came to an opening in the forest. A small well-built hut stood in the center of the place with wooden sticks arranged in a pattern around it. “This is a holy place,” said the mbui in a solemn voice, “nobody can dwell here unharmed unless I take them along. This is my ludewa, where I meet my ancestral spirits. In the days of my grandfather many years ago, a warrior pursued by his enemies fled into this forest. They followed his tracks until suddenly his footsteps disappeared where the shrine is now standing. The spirits had taken him away and that was a sign that here was a meeting place for ancestral spirits of the warrior's tribe.

“My grandfather who was a famous mbui made this place his sanctuary. Everything here, the trees and plants, the water in the stream and the very air itself has healing power. A person in trouble will undergo a purifying ceremony and sleep here at night. The spirits of his ancestors will appear to him in sleep. The next morning he tells me his dream and I help him understand the message conveyed to him. At other times I go to this sacred grove by myself to perform rites and to ask my ancestral spirit helpers why somebody is ill. They may advise me to prepare some medicine for the patient and his family to take. Or I might have everybody in the family, old and young, even the smallest baby come here to the sanctuary. Behind the ludewa is a little stream where I can dam the water so that it forms a pool. I will shave everybody's head and throw the hair into the pool. Then they all have to take a ritual bath in the clear water. Afterwards, while they watch me, I open the dam and let the water run out. As the water washes away the hair and dirt from their body, so their guilt and wrongdoings are swept away down the river. I try to reestablish peace between the people according to our custom. Whatever the dispute is about--a barren wife, an unfaithful spouse, a disrespectful child or even a land-claim--we have to abide by the rules inherited from our ancestors.”

The mbui beckoned me to come inside his ludewa. I saw bundles of roots and dry branches in one corner and in another a group of gourds similar to the one he had used before to sound out the spirits. Dried leaves and fruits of a kind I did not know were suspended from the ceiling. There was an over powering smell of herbs. I saw no firepit with ashes as in ordinary dwellings, only a few straw mats along the wall to sleep on. The mbui had in the meantime seated himself on the ground, the children standing behind him. I noticed that they all had spots which looked as if made of red clay, on their foreheads. When I joined them outside and the mbui smiled in a friendly way, I asked him what the marks were there for. He looked fondly at the children and explained, “Dreams have great significance and bad dreams may forebode unhappy events. My medicine against dreams which I apply to the children's foreheads protects them from accidents and illness. People come to tell me their dreams,” the mbui continued. “Before going on a hunting trip or making an important decision, the head of a family will tell me his dreams, so that I can advise him what actions to take. Sometimes dreams warn the dreamer that he will be hit by an illness. Then I will ask my helping spirits whether somebody wants to harm the man and what could be done to avoid it. I might find out the culprit when an accident occurs but when the case is too complicated I have to use the water ordeal to discover the guilty person.”

I looked at the old diviner. Should I dare ask further questions? He seemed relaxed and friendly and this was a chance I might never have again. “What is the water ordeal?” I asked.

“Well, let us say a man comes to me because he feels sick. The medicine man has not been able to help him. Maybe he has been at the mission to get some modern medicine, but he does not feel any better. Now he has had some nasty quarrels with his first wife for some time. He suspects her of wanting to harm him, perhaps by poisoning his food. He does not, however, dare to accuse her openly for fear of the consequences should she be innocent. After he has told me about his suspicions, I might decide to perform the water ordeal. I will announce that my ancestral spirits have told me that somebody is out to harm the man, and will summon all the villagers. Wood and water fixed in a special ceremony is brought to a crossroad outside the village where everybody has assembled. The wood is used to make a fire and boil the water in a big kettle, and when I have prepared myself, all the villagers file past the kettle. The sick man stands at my side and as each person walks past he will ask me, ”Is this the wrongdoer?“ and I will dip a twig in the boiling water and sprinkle it on my hand. If the person before me is free of guilt the water will not hurt me. But when the culprit is before us, the water drops suddenly burn my skin and I utter a cry. Then everybody knows who is the guilty one. If it should turn out to be the man's wife I will ask both of them to come to my ludewa for a special ceremony and I will do my best to reconcile them. I might warn the couple not to bring further misfortune on their family and remind them of the ancestors' wrath. I will prepare a special meal which they have to eat together as a sign that they will bury their grudges. People also come to me to learn how to appease angry spirits, because I am the one who knows the traditional ways. I received my knowledge from my grandfather and my father and will pass it on to young men who have the desire and the strength to become a mbui.”

The old diviner looked at the boy adorned with the ceremonial scarf and smiled. “It's time to take Mama Mganga back,” he said, “I am going to stay here for a while.” He stretched out his hand and took mine. Turning the palm of my hand up he looked at it for a while. “You have much to learn yet,” he muttered, then he looked me in the eye and said: “Remember to be fearless and patient.” My face reddened and I felt my ears glowing. Could the old mbui have seen that I had too much fear and not enough patience? He smiled at me and there was kindness in his eyes. Before I was able to say something, he turned away and went into his ludewa.

I walked back with the boy in silence, overwhelmed and deeply impressed by what I had seen and heard. Not before we were close to the mission did I find words to express some of my thoughts. “How is it possible that your mbui could speak so openly to a stranger like me?” I asked the boy. “He knows that many missionaries and others do what they can to convert his people to Christianity or Islam, thereby turning the people away from their traditional beliefs and customs.” “Yes, he knows,” said the boy with a smile, “but he feels stronger than the missionaries.” As I looked a bit doubtful, the boy went on to tell me that many years ago there was an old Father at the mountain mission who had become increasingly angry about the powerful mbui whom he thought to be a conservative force interfering with his missionary work. One day this Father decided to challenge the mbui face to face and to show him whose faith was stronger. He set out to look for the mbui in his sanctuary. To make sure he would find the way, he took along a few local people. But as they approached the ludewa the guides began to tremble and one after the other refused to accompany the Father any further. Finally they had all left, but the determined priest marched on by himself until he found the mbui already waiting for him at the ludewa. What was said between the two nobody knows, but the good Father got beside himself with rage and blindly tore down the sanctuary, throwing around the herbs and gourds and everything else he found in it. The mbui only sat quietly while the priest went berserk. It was in the middle of the day and very hot. The old Father was terribly upset. He became confused and when he wanted to return home, he could not find his way. Finally the mbui himself led the helpless priest safely back to the mission, with dignity and without reproaching him for what he had done. It was said that the Father never fully recovered from his crusade, while the mbui quietly rebuilt his shrine. People believe that it was the mbui's spirit helpers who avenged themselves upon the Father. After this event the mbui was even more respected among the people who from now on called him mbui mshindi the invincible diviner.

Copyright © 1979 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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